Trade unionism at EPZs likely in Jan

By Rafiq Hasan, The Daily Star, Vol. 4 Num 184, Sunday 30 November 2003

Dhaka may allow trade union (TU) activities in the export processing zones (EPZs) in the wake of Washington's threat to drop the generalised system of preference (GSP) to its export items from January if the activities were not allowed.

State Minister for Labour and Employment Amanullah Aman said this, adding that a high-powered inter-ministerial committee headed by him finalises recommendations to this end today. The recommendations will be sent to Prime Minister Khaleda Zia for consideration by mid-December.

“There is no restriction on the formation of trade unions in the EPZs from the government's side,” Aman said.

“The workers can form trade unions at any time.”

The issue of allowing trade unions at two EPZs, that employ 1,30,000 workers in around 180 industrial units, is over a decade old.

Bangladesh sat on the issue because the GSP has a comparatively low economic value in total export basket. Under the GSP, Bangladeshi exports to the US fetch some $40 million annually, but total export from the EPZs fetches $1.2 billion or one-fifth of country's total export earnings.

Restriction on trade unionism under a 1980 law is one of the many incentives investors enjoy at the EPZs. The two EPZs boast mainly South Korean and Japanese investments, apart from local investment to the tune of $600 million. The investors are threatening the EPZ authorities with withdrawal of investment if trade unions are allowed.

The US is the largest importer of Bangladeshi products, accounting for 44 percent of its total export. Although most US imports from Bangladesh fall outside the GSP, its cancellation may affect overall trade with Bangladesh.

US Ambassador in Dhaka Harry K Thomas has been saying that Washington would not offer the GSP to Bangladesh from January if it failed to introduce trade unionism in its exclusive industrial zones.

Bangladesh and the US signed the GSP treaty in 1991 that expired in 2001. Washington extended the pact by another three years on condition that Bangladesh would allow trade unions by then to enjoy the facility.

Dhaka was trying to soften the US position on trade unions, but Washington gave cold shoulder to Dhaka's appeal to give another three years before the launch of trade unions.

A high-powered delegation visited Washington last month and asked for more time to give special training to workers before allowing trade union activities.

The government fears trade unionism in the exclusive zones would allow unruly workers scope to often stage strikes and work stoppages without any cogent reasons.

Earlier on November 17, the ministry discussed the latest developments on the trade union issue at a meeting chaired by Aman and decided to raise it at the next board meeting of Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority (BEPZA) on November 30.